Morris B. Abram, the best-known of President Reagan's three new nominees to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, suggested today that he occupies a middle ground between the White House and its critics on civil rights, and said the administration has "shot itself in the foot" on some issues.
The administration should not have hesitated as it did on extension of the Voting Rights Act last year, he said, and it also bobbled the issue of tax-exempt status for segregated private schools in the celebrated Bob Jones University case.
But, Abram, 65, in his first interview since nomination, said he sees no "malignancy of purpose" against minorities in the administration's civil rights policies, and criticized the current Civil Rights Commission for often "mindlessly adopting every slogan" of the civil rights movement.
He predicted that Reagan's nominees, including himself, will reinvigorate the commission, if they are confirmed by the Senate after hearings that are scheduled to conclude this week, because the nominees will "add intellectual weight" to the commission.
"I'm willing to call a spade a spade," Abram said. "I don't care whether it's good to hear or not pleasing to the ears, discordant. I'm going to say it."
Abram, a long-time civil rights activist whose legal work helped establish the one-man, one-vote law in the South, said the commission and most civil rights groups now are conveniently ignoring the "monumental progress" made in civil rights over the last 20 years and the major remaining civil rights problem in America, which he said is a "permanent underclass" of poor, uneducated and unmotivated blacks who have proved unable to profit from the last 20 years of progress.
"The gap between blacks and whites in income doesn't close by getting a better job for a civil rights leader's child who attended Amherst," said Abram, the former president of Brandeis University and of the American Jewish Committee and chairman of the United Negro College Fund for nine years.
"All that does is help those to an advantage that is unneeded. What is being done for those down in the pit? Who is speaking for them? Occasionally civil rights leaders . . . need to stand back and say 'What am I doing, is it working?' and be willing to stop shouting slogans of the past and begin dealing with facts, figures and conditions of the present.
"I am not willing," Abram added, asserting his independence from both Reagan and the standard-bearers from the civil rights community, "to deal with an issue as important as racial discrimination in this country in terms of shibboleths that come from leaders of the civil rights community . . . , this administration or any other president."
Last week at a Senate confirmation hearing Abram and the other nominees, John Bunzel, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Robert Estrow, a Catholic University law professor, as well as Linda Chavez, the nominee for staff director, faced stiff opposition from Democrats who said they were being used by Reagan as a tool to "silence" a commission that often has been critical of the president.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), in an explanation of his opposition to the nominees and particularly Abram with his list of impressive credentials, said, "I don't have any argument with you but I'm going to vote against all of you." Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) added that nothing the nominees "can say or do or have done has any relevance. These nominations carry with them the president's anti-civil rights firings."
Abram, seated in the Park Avenue offices of his law firm, said he stopped giving automatic credence to prevailing black opinion in the mid-1960s, when he saw President Johnson "lacerated" by some blacks for not spending enough money on civil rights programs and "attacked exactly as Reagan is attacked today."
"This administration in certain respects shot itself in the foot on areas of civil rights," Abram continued. "I do not in any way depreciate the interest of the president in civil rights . . . , but the Voting Rights Act should have been extended just like that." He said the Bob Jones University case, in which for a time the administration was endorsing tax-exempt status for discriminating schools, "is another case of shooting themselves in the foot . . . ."
"I think they have the best interest of blacks, whites and the country at heart . . . . There is no malignancy of purpose in the president of the United States . . . . I resent being asked if I am involving myself with something evil. We are not talking about a dictator."
There may be racists in the Reagan administration, Abram said, but he added that there are likely to be racists in every administration, including the administration of black public officials.
"In any administration this country ever had there are people who hold evil, racist views . . . ," he said. "I am too old and too wise, I hope, to have this litmus-paper view of the world, this apocalyptic view, that everything named Democrat is good and everything Republican is bad, everything named Reagan is bad and everything named Carter is good. That's absurd."
Abram also defended his stand on quotas, saying they damage the dignity of blacks left uncertain whether they have been hired because of their abilities or the color of their skin, as well as the resentment quotas engender in whites. He said the civil rights community's support for quotas is evidence of "uninvestigated and unexamined principles accepted a priori."
"One of them is that quotas are good for blacks. What's good for the country is good for blacks who are incredibly important and one of the oldest elements of the country and whose claim for justice is still unrealized . . . . But the method of dealing with this is not necessarily that which is proclaimed by various groups such as the Leadership Conference[on Civil Rights], which presumes to speak for all."